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Monday, August 02, 2010
Philistine Meets The Wolf Man

Back in 1987 I got a job at a video rental store. It was a mom-and-pop operation on Saint Paul's Grand Avenue, and it offered each of its titles in two videocassette formats -- Betamax, which was still cherished by many, and VHS, which was quickly becoming the industry standard.

The video rental market had gotten started in such little shops, and in the beginning, business was good. On a Friday or Saturday night in the early 80s the place had been able to clear a grand or more.

Although weekend business was still brisk, by the time I came along things were clearly in decline. That was because VCRs had saturated the market, and the novelty of movie rental had worn off. The days when people would walk in and rent three or four titles at a go were over.

One day I told my boss about a video store that had opened near the freeway -- a gigantic place. "It's got a billion titles," I said, exaggerating slightly for dramatic effect. "It's beautiful. It's clean. All the movie boxes are in plastic slipcases. They're going to crush us like insects."

My boss smiled tolerantly and patted me on the shoulder. "Don't worry," he said. "People will never abandon their neighborhood video store". Within a couple of years he was out of business, as were nearly all the small-time video proprietors. Mammoth operations like Hollywood Video and Blockbuster and Title Wave took over.

And so it was fashionable throughout the 1990s to bash the big chain retailers like as soulless, corporate philistines. What did they know or care about the movies they rented?

But reading about Blockbuster's impending bankruptcy made me feel a twinge of regret.

The age of the dinosaurs has ended, but the dinosaurs, in retrospect, weren't so bad.

This was brought home to me while looking for an old movie for the Horror Incorporated Project. In the old days it would have been easy enough to drive over to Blockbuster and grab a copy. But I realized I hadn't been in a Blockbuster for years; my habits had changed. Gone were the days when I browsed the rows of plastic snap-cases, without any particular movie in mind.

Now I fiddled with Netflix queues, or clicked through Netflix on-demand titles, or opened the on-demand menu on the TV.

There is still a Blockbuster Video in my neighborhood, but I'm not even sure what goes on there.
Last time I checked they still rented DVDs, but much of their floor space was devoted to selling used discs. This was because the store, in trying to keep up with customer demand for the latest red-hot video release, would buy thirty copies of the same title. After a few weeks, the demand slackened, and the store was stuck with dozens of copies of the same movie (back in 1987, of course, videotapes were never sold -- because the retail price for a commercially-produced cassette was often $100 or more).

Because so much space is taken up with selling used DVDs, the rental selection had diminished considerably. I doubted they would still carry the obscure movie I wanted. While I could place it on the top of my Netflix queue, I'd have to find the movie I currently had out (I've had it out for months), return it, and wait a few days for the new one to arrive. It wasn't on Netflix On Demand. And Redbox, which has become the rental option of choice these days, only carries the two or three dozen most popular titles.

So it finally dawned on me that offbeat and obscure movies are less accessible today than they were twenty years ago, not more accessible.

The fact that the movie I was searching for was Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man should not be counted against me. You go live in your dreary little world, sad sack. I'm doing fine in mine.

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